Rudy Leyva / Staff writer
There is agreement among many of those attempting to resolve the pet overpopulation problem that the causes of the dilemma must be acknowledged and then addressed for any discernible progress to be realized. Looking at numbers from studies and surveys taken by various animal welfare organizations help to define the size of the problem.
According to a 2011-2012 National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association (APPA), 62 percent of U.S. households own a pet, which equates 72.9 million homes. The survey offers a further breakdown of numbers showing that Americans own a total of 86.4 million cats and 78.2 million dogs. However large these numbers appear, there are other figures that highlight the shortage of homes available to millions of other potentially adoptable companion pets.
Various studies by animal welfare advocates such as The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) give estimates of between 50,000 and 70,000 companion pets being born in the U.S. every day. To demonstrate the effect of the proliferation rate of cats, it has theoretically been shown that a female cat and just one litter that she gives birth to can produce up to 425,000 cats in a seven-year period; a dog and her offspring can produce 67,000 puppies in a six-year timespan.
Those on the frontlines of fighting against pet overpopulation realize the crux of the matter: the breeding rate of our pets far exceeds the number of homes available to house them. There are numerous ways these statistics can be changed, thus reducing the numbers of animals killed in shelters, the amount of money spent in addressing the problem and alleviating the misery of those stray and abused animals that roam the streets.
A primary topic discussed when it comes to the number of animals involved in pet overpopulation is spaying and neutering of pets. Whatever motivates the owner of a pet to take this step, it is viewed by many as the responsible thing to do. The National Humane Society (NHS) clearly supports this notion, noting the problems caused by “Negligent individuals who fail to have their dogs and cats spayed and neutered to prevent reproduction.” Spaying and neutering can be an expensive procedure; however, there are frequently options available in communities to assist in obtaining a lower cost to these procedures.
Judi Sisson of the Coastal Bend Small Breed Rescue, whose ambition is to become an animal behavior counselor, believes that local veterinarians would participate in such a venture. “I believe that our veterinarians would join in to help in a project offering low-cost spaying and neutering. We would just need a place to do it. I can tell you right now that they would help; they’re good people.”
Sometimes, cost is not the sole obstacle when it comes to making this decision to spay or neuter a pet. There are concerns some owners may have regarding pet spaying and neutering that are regarded as myths by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). One belief that owners might express is that their pet will get fat and lazy. HSUS dismisses this idea insisting that “most pets get fat and lazy because their owners feed them too much and don’t give them enough exercise.” Other owners may wonder if their pet dog would be less protective. HSUS says, “It is a dog’s natural instinct to protect home and family. A dog’s personality is formed more by genetics and environment than by sex hormones.” Additionally, HSUS proclaims that male dogs or cats will not feel like “less of a male” if neutered. “Pets don’t have any concept of sexual identity or ego. Neutering will not change a pet’s personality.”
Cesar Millan, of television’s “The Dog Whisperer”, sees failure to spay and neuter as a major factor in what he terms as a “dog overpopulation crisis.” In an article for Fox News Latino in 2011, Millan expressed his belief that education is required to overcome some cultural conceptions that persistently hinder a badly-needed solution to saving animals’ lives. “Hispanics, like many other cultures, pride themselves on being respectful to nature, but sometimes we inherit cultural beliefs that don’t necessarily add up to progress.” He said some believe that spaying or neutering diminishes the pet’s value or causes the pet to be “ashamed because they don’t have their reproductive apparatus.”
Millan says he believed this when he first came to America, but learned and educated himself and now his desire is to spread that awareness. “I would love for my Hispanic community to put that idea aside just for a moment…so they can hear a message that can change and save millions of lives.”
NHS believes that along with failing to spay and neuter there are other causes that create pet overpopulation. “Commercial and hobby breeders and puppy mills continue to bring more puppies and kittens into an already overpopulated world thereby ensuring that the vast majority of animals brought to the shelters will not be placed in adoptive homes.”
Certain animal welfare organizations such as the ASPCA draw a distinction between professional breeders and “puppy mills.” The ASPCA’s Web site lists specific criteria relating to professional breeders that deem them as being focused on “one or a few select breeds” and because of their study, research, mentoring relationships and proper raising and training, breeders are “experts” in the health, temperament and behavior concerning their pets. The Web site offers the organization’s position of what defines the best practices for a responsible breeder. While the NHS and the ASPCA may not totally agree when it comes to professional breeders, they do concur on the subject of puppy mills as both organizations oppose them and discourage people from purchasing pets received from them.
Puppy mills are considered large-scale commercial dog- breeding facilities that place more emphasis on monetary gain than on welfare of the animals they sell. The ASPCA points out that illness and disease are common among dogs that come from puppy mills, partly due to improper husbandry practices. The Web site of the SPCA-Texas claims that puppy mills can be deceptive. “They take on friendly demeanors, and excel at conning people into believing they are legitimate, caring breeders. But the truth is that many are in it simply for profit, abusing animals to further their gain.”
According to the ASPCA, the pets from puppy mills often make their way to pet stores through brokers – middlemen; others may be sold through the Internet, newspaper ads, and flea markets. Smaller puppy mills are often called backyard breeders. In recent years another avenue for selling puppies has emerged on the black-market dog trade in the U.S. In 2010, Chris Sweeney of DVM Magazine wrote, “Across the U.S./Mexican border, and through the airports, a stream of illegal puppies are crossing U.S. borders. Big profits are made, important humanitarian issues ignored and significant health risks propagated with each illegal dog that is trafficked into the country.”
In the same article, Karen Ehnert, senior veterinarian for the County of Los Angeles’ Department of Public Health points out that “among the dogs being smuggled in from Mexico parvovirus and distemper are rampant.” Captain Aaron Reyes of the Southeast Animal Control Authority said, “The effort is to show the powers that be that this is a very serious issue, the most serious aspect being the health problems, including zoonotic issues and the fact that these puppies end up in our kids’ beds.”
With shelters full of many good, healthy and adoptable pets, the HSUS points out that each pet that is bought from a store or a breeder or even received from a personal source such as a neighbor, means one less home is available for a needy dog or cat destined to be killed unless someone comes to its rescue.
Another less noticeable aspect of why animals enter shelters is when their owners die or become incapacitated and are unable to care for them. The ASPCA estimates that approximately 500,000 owners are in such a situation annually, and without arrangements for proper care and supervision, their pets may end up “in a shelter where their future is uncertain.” In order to ease matters, the ASPCA has teamed up with LegalZoom.com, an online provider of legal documents, to provide “Pet Protection Agreements,” “a simple and easy way for pet parents to designate who will take responsibility for their pets and how care will be provided” in the event that the owners are unable to do so.
Failing to spay or neuter, buying from commercial sources or backyard breeders, choosing not to adopt, failing to make arrangements for pets mean that more pets are added to an already serious problem. The causes of pet overpopulation are known and there are solutions.